Hazel Poa Koon Koon

Closing speech on the Motion to abolish Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs)

Mr Dy Speaker Sir,

I would like to thank all members who participated in this debate.

After all that has been said, I think it is quite clear that there is no disagreement on the importance of multi-racial representation in parliament.  Where we differ is in how to achieve that multi-racial representation.

I disagree with Minister Chan when he said that our proposals do not ensure multi-racial representation or prevent race-based parties.

Earlier on, when I spoke about proportional representation, I mentioned this only briefly.  Perhaps that is the reason why it was not clearly conveyed. So let me go into further details now.

Typically, in a hybrid electoral system containing both elements of First-Past-The-Post and Proportional Representation, each voter has two ballots instead of one.

The first ballot will be to vote for a candidate in a local SMC. The candidate with the most votes is elected.  So this should address the Hon Member Raj Joshua Thomas’ concern about the geographical link between the MP and the residents.

The second ballot will be to vote for a party at the national level, and the seats will be allocated to each party based on the party’s national vote share.  Each party typically has a party list of their candidates.  If a party is allocated 10 seats, usually the first 10 candidates on their party list get elected. But I am not suggesting that we copy wholesale the system that is in place in other countries, unlike what Minister Chan is suggesting.  I am suggesting that we adapt their system to meet our needs.

How can we adapt this to ensure minority representation?

Currently, we have 17 GRCs in total, and up to three in five must have a Malay candidate while the other two must be Indian or Others. This means the GRC system currently ensures about 12% Malay and 6% Indians and others representation. 

We can therefore ensure minority representation by:

  • Mandating that at least 50%, 12% and 6% of each political party’s candidates running in SMCs must be from the Chinese, Malay and Indian/Other communities respectively.  This is analogous to the Ethnic quota in HDB flats.
  • Each party list must be multi-racial and the selection of candidates from the Party lists must be chosen in such a manner as to meet the racial representation requirements for each Party as I have mentioned earlier.

These requirements can be limited to only parties that contest in more than one seat.  This is to make room for independent candidates in our electoral system.

So by imposing these racial quotas similar to the way it is done in HDB flats, we can ensure that parties are multi-racial and they don’t play race-based politics.

Another comment about PR is the fear of fragmented Parliament.

A common feature in a Proportional Representation system is a threshold.  Only political parties that obtained a minimum national vote percentage are allocated seats proportionally.  This feature serves to screen out parties with extreme positions and insufficient electoral support, and prevents Parliament from getting too fragmented.  A common range for thresholds in countries that practice the Proportional Representation is around 4 to 5 percent.

The ballot on party lists is like a national level multi-cornered fight with participation from all the political parties that wish to contest.  If the results of past multi-cornered fights in Singapore elections is any guide, we are unlikely to see too fragmented a Parliament.

Minister Chan earlier mentioned that the fear is that a Proportional Representation system would result in race-based politics and also parties that run on minority interest. I have addressed the point on race-based politics and now, on the minority interest. I do not see that that is necessarily a bad thing for there to be parties with minority interests.

For example, Green parties have always had some minority support.  Environmental concerns have now become mainstream, but Green parties still face great difficulties getting elected under a FPTP system.  Incorporating some level of proportional representation into our electoral system will ensure that minority concerns are also represented in Parliament and that can only be beneficial to decision making.

When a political party enjoys clear majority support, a FPTP system tends to give that party more seats in Parliament than its national vote share.  We can see this clearly in Singapore.  At the last GE, PAP obtained about 60% of the national vote but nearly 90% of the elected seats.  

But when political support is more divided, the outcome becomes more volatile.  As an illustration, consider the other side of the coin.  If 60% of national vote translate into 90% seats, it means that a national vote share of 40% can result in only 10% of the seats.  In other words, a drop of 20% in national support level can result in a drop of 80% in seats.  Of course, national support level does not normally drop 20% that easily or quickly.  This illustration merely seeks to point out the volatility and unpredictability of election outcomes under FPTP system when support level hovers around 50%.  At this stage, a Proportional Representation system brings greater stability and predictability. 

Next I will move on to the issues relating to the NCMP suggestion.

PSP is confident that our minority candidates can stand on their own and win elections.  But as we also recognised the importance of multi-racial representation in Parliament, that is why we also propose 2 alternatives to ensure that.  The beauty of the NCMP scheme is that it does not kick in when not needed.  But if it is needed, if not enough minority candidates can win on their own, then we need to know why and address the underlying issues head-on instead of sweeping it under the GRC carpet.  Racism exists all spheres, not only in elections.

At this point I have a question to ask Minister Chan.  I did not quite understand why he said that when we adopt this scheme then all the minorities will be NCMPs in opposition, and the ruling party will be majority Chinese. Under this NCMP scheme we suggested, the NCMP can be in either ruling party or opposition, unlike the current NCMP scheme which is just for opposition.

Mr Murali also weighed in on his personal experience during his campaign, citing examples of attempts of people trying to play the race card.  We all recognize that racism does exist and to totally eradicate it would not be possible. But the point is that they did not succeed. So while racism exist, it was not enough to change election outcome.

The Hon member Janet Ang mentioned that an article or report from IPS in 2013 that stated opposition parties also benefit from GRCs.  That was after WP won Aljunied GRC.  Minister Chan similar made the point as well that WP and PSP also benefitted from the coattail effect, and specifically that I also benefitted from it.  I think the question here is whether GRC is the right way and the best way for Singapore, and not whether I personally benefit from it.

The doubt was raised by Ms Janet Ang over the opposition’s claim that GRC has detrimental effects on opposition. Allow me to quote statistics from our GEs around the time when the legislation was changed to introduce GRC and to make further amendments to it.

As I have mentioned earlier, our current GRC system was created over 3 amendments to our laws in 1988, 1991 and 1996. 

To recap briefly, in 1988, 3 member GRCs were introduced and justified on the basis of minority representation.  In 1991 and 1996, the sizes of GRC and the upper limit on GRC seats were increased.

Let us look at the effect these amendments have on our minority representation and political development in the general elections following these changes which is GE 88, 91 and 97.

First, let us look at minority representation. 

In GE1984, before the introduction of GRCs, 16 minority MPs were elected making up 20.3% of all elected MPs.   After the introduction of GRC, in GE1988, minority MPs make up 19.8% of all elected MPs, a slight drop compared to GE1984.  In the next 2 GEs, minority MPs make up 21% and 22.9%.

In contrast, its effect on our political development is more dramatic.

In GE1984, before the introduction of GRC, 38% of the seats were uncontested.

In GE1988, the percentage of uncontested seats dropped to 13.6%.  However, in the next 2 GEs, after GRC sizes were increased to 4 and then 6, and the number of GRC seats increased, uncontested seats jumped from 13.6% to 50.6% and 56.6% in GE1991 and GE1997 respectively.

After 3 amendments, the real effect of the GRC system is this: it made hardly any difference to minority representation but led to a huge increase in walkovers.  Faced with the raised hurdle, which is the GRC, opposition parties had to adopt a by-election strategy in response.

GETotal seatsUncontestedMinority MPs
19847930 (38.0%)16 (20.3%)
19888111 (13.6%)16 (19.8%)
19918141 (50.6%)17 (21.0%)
19978347 (56.6%)19 (22.9%)

Looking at these figures, it behoves us to revisit these questions:

One:  Why were GRCs introduced? Was it truly for minority representation or was it for political advantage?

It is worth noting that in GE2020, without any further intervention to help minority candidates, the percentage of elected MPs who are minorities has increased to 28%.  This happened naturally as part of society’s development.  This is similar to the way women representation in Parliament increased to 30% without any GRC-like intervention. 

Two:  Why were the maximum sizes of GRCs increased to 6? 

This does not help minority representation.  The justification that this is done so that we need not change the boundaries so frequently is unconvincing.  I am sure we have all heard jokes about how residents keep changing constituencies at each election without moving house.  Was it for economies of scale?  Wouldn’t the same be achieved by a few SMCs working together?

Three:  Why were the upper limit on GRC seats increased?  Is it a coincidence that as these changes were made, the number of walkovers increased dramatically?

In the recent GE, PAP has tried to make the GRCs smaller.  6 member GRCs were removed, and the average size of GRCs was reduced slightly.  However, as long as GRCs remain, so too remain the problems associated with the GRC system – namely, coattail effect, reduced voter influence on outcome, hampering political development and underserved and under-represented residents in GRCs with unfilled vacancies.

PAP has mentioned before that even though there is a vacancy In GRC but residents are happy with the arrangements they have made for other MPs to cover for the MP who has left.

But in fact, residents have never been directly asked if they preferred a GRC or SMC system.  If PAP is certain of this, would it be willing to ask this question of voters, using the Presidential election as the means to conduct a referendum?  I am sure this is a question many Singaporeans would want a say in.  Who better to decide how voters should be represented, than the voters themselves?

Minister Chan earlier spoke about the by-election and concluded by saying that the court has decided.  Considering that Parliament is the lawmaker, and Courts execute the laws made by Parliament, this rather puts the cart before the horse.

In the past, Singapore has benefitted from a strong single-party system.  At our developmental stages, many countries were ahead of us in development and provided us many examples with which to study.  We could emulate where appropriate and discard where not.  We could move ahead swiftly with strong political leadership.

However, without the regular turnover of leadership and political competition, single-party system also carries the risk of entrenching power within a small group.  This can erode democratic principles and perpetuate a culture of nepotism or cronyism.  Checks and balances are necessary for the longer term.

Singapore has entered a different stage of development and with each GE, the growing desire of the voters for greater checks and balances and political diversity becomes more apparent.  As we move towards a more balanced political landscape, many changes will be needed.  One of these is to abolish the GRC.

I urge all members and Singaporeans to support the call to abolish GRC and consider alternative ways of ensuring minority representation. Thank you.

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